Of Broken Things: A Sister’s Grief

Preface: Welcome to our Journal. Our intention is to write short, yet informative, pieces about serious mental illness that will educate and inspire compassion. We know that there are numerous websites you can visit for general information about illnesses like Schizophrenia, for example. Instead of a generic list of symptoms, we're going to share about the real life situations behind the labels and diagnosis. Names and circumstances may be slightly altered, but we believe there are some exceptional individuals you should meet. People who live right in your own backyard (so to speak). So sit back, grab a cup of coffee and spend a few brief moments with our Journal.

Today we are going to hear from Sarah Knaub again, who writes about grief. She is the older sibling to someone who suffers with a serious mental illness. Sarah makes her home in the East Valley of the Phoenix, Arizona area. 

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In a previous post I discussed what it was like adjusting to life with a younger sister with mental illness. About two years ago, my sister left for a group home. She packed a bag one morning and was gone before noon on a Friday. Several group homes, juvenile detention, the streets, and finally another state later, it’s safe to say nothing’s gone the way we originally thought.

This Present Weight

“I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning…I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” Psalm 38:6&8

The first few months after my sister left, our grief revolved around her absence. It was like an ache lingering in the bones, a weight constantly carried.  I had thought that mourning was reserved for death: but this irreversible breaking of our family brought grief just as tangibly heavy. It’s difficult to describe the many emotions that followed me in those days. Denial. Sadness. Anger. Resignation.

So, we coped. We kept the door to the empty bedroom at the end of the hall shut and I didn’t go near it for a long time. My younger sisters and I never really talked about what happened. But we did gradually grow closer, healing through arguments and tears.

Grief, I’ve found, is a very lonely process. But God was there through it all.

No What-ifs

“I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, ‘…Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?’” Psalm 77:5-8

Just when the present reality finally seemed to settle in around us, I began to grieve the past.

Sure, I missed the sister that had left. But our relationship was in pieces by the time she walked out the door. I didn’t want the version of her that walked out the door back; I wanted “my” little sister back. I wanted the little girl I loved: somehow, someway, she had gotten swallowed up by whatever was going on in her brain and that change has not yet, and perhaps will never, cease to sting.

Guilt over all the things I’d done wrong haunted me. Maybe if I hadn’t yelled so much. Maybe if I hugged her more. That desire, to somehow go back in time and love her a little better, has never left me. It still has the power to bring me to my knees before the Father that crafted and holds our past. I praise Him that past regret does not alter tomorrow’s hope.

Tomorrow’s Absence

“Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you…why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” Psalm 88:9&14

The future does not look like I thought it would. We’ve moved forward, however. My sister’s bedroom now holds a sofa and TV. We talk to her on the phone every so often. We pray for her heart, for her safety, for her healing. It’s hard, though, not to get stuck mourning the “could-have-beens” – the milestones and memories we’ll celebrate in a capacity I’d never anticipated.

The reality of what my family has been through has also meant a change in our relationships. Lack of knowledge breeds misunderstanding, and I lost or drifted away from many friends during those years. I miss these relationships and mourn all the brokenness that can arise out of misconceptions about mental illness and how to deal with it.

It’s still hard to explain to new friends the disparity between “I have three sisters,” and “Let me introduce you to two of them.” Reunions with old friends present similar difficulties. My family has experienced both a unique and yet all too common situation. How do you sum up the fallout of mental illness in a few neat sentences?

Where will my sister go from here? How will our relationship look a year from now? Will there still be one?

Tomorrow’s uncertainty will either drive us insane or to the cross.

God of All Comfort

We mourn, but not as people without hope.

My grief remains, and I still struggle with it daily. But God has used it to bring deep empathy and love for my sister and other struggling families.

I cry with those mourning all the things you lose when you love someone with mental illness, but also rejoice with them that our eyes have been opened to all the beauty gained. Where this sin-riddled world breaks, God brings healing through the breaking – for the mentally ill and us (the siblings, the parents, the friends, the family) too.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God”

2 Corinthians 1:3-4